Tag Archives: UK general election

Scottish constitutional change always seems one step behind the national mood – but we finally have a chance to get it right


It is 19 years since George Robertson declared famously that Scottish devolution would ‘kill nationalism stone dead’. It remains one of the most important, symbolic, phrases because it sums up one of the worst sentiments in British politics: constitutional change seems, too often, to be a stitch up by one or more political parties at the expense of the others.  Too often, we have seen unionist parties produce deals amongst themselves rather than engage meaningfully with nationalist parties like the SNP.

The main result is that Scottish constitutional change often seems out of step with the national mood. The Calman Commission, established in 2007 by Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives, produced the Scotland Act 2012 that seemed out of date before it was implemented. The Smith Commission was established in 2014 and, although it produced its recommendations in a ridiculously short space of time, they already seem like the starting point for discussion, not a new devolved settlement.

Yet, it was not always this way. For a brief period, from devolution in 1999, we talked more about ‘new politics’ than independence. This is partly because many of the parties involved were more inclined to do the right thing than Robertson’s comment suggests. Scottish Labour didn’t hold hands with the SNP, but it made sure that it got SNP support during the Yes to devolution campaign in 1997. The parties (including Scottish Labour, Liberal Democrats and what would become the Scottish Greens) also thought about how political reforms would go hand in hand with constitutional reform, encouraging some debate about new forms of deliberative and participatory democracy.  They engaged ‘civil society’ groups, and the campaign for devolution had a strong focus on gender and the participation of women in public life. In short, they had a Scottish Constitutional Convention. This period of reform in the 1990s should provide some lessons today.

It is too tempting to argue that the incredible rise of the SNP, and its likely dominance of Scottish seats in Westminster, will produce a constitutional crisis – a UK party only governing with the consent of the SNP will reinforce a broad sense that ‘The Scots appear fed up with the English, and the English with the Scots’. Simon Jenkins suggests, rather provocatively, that the current union is dying and that ‘Some new format is required that must embrace parliamentary disengagement, devo-max or indie-lite or whatever. The task for Cameron or Miliband is to be architect of that format’.

Yet, this conclusion is not inevitable and the solution is not quite right. In particular, we do need to rethink the plans for further constitutional change that were produced so hastily by the Smith Commission for the sake of party politics rather than sensible constitutional redesign. However, a new constitutional convention should be the architect, not the leader of one political party doing a deal with another.

If you look at the rhetoric of the main parties, a new convention in Scotland is just the ticket. It suits Labour’s ‘no deals with the SNP’ stance, since a convention is a way out: it could be portrayed as an attempt to go beyond party politics and engage Scottish civil society. It suits the SNP, looking to maximise its influence but not be stuck with the idea that all it wants is ‘devo max’ or ‘full fiscal autonomy’ as a stepping stone to independence.  It might even suit the Conservative party if it squeaks into government again with the Liberal Democrats, since a convention may be the only way to generate a sense of legitimacy in Scotland if it has few or no MPs in Scotland.

The alternative for the UK parties (apart from the UK-wide convention proposed by Labour, which seems separate from Scottish reforms) is to stick with Smith and exclude the SNP, which seems like an untenable position for parties that claim to want to reform the Union to protect it. Only the SNP benefits from the stand-off, and only a constitutional convention provides anything close to a competing story of Scottish legitimacy to the one crafted so well by the SNP.


Filed under Scottish independence, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy

An #indyref2 on the back of a big SNP election win is inconceivable

Jim Murphy has warned that, if the SNP wins the vast majority of Scottish seats in this election, Scotland will be ‘turbo-charged towards a second referendum’. The poll evidence suggests that one part of this statement is true: the SNP is on course to win the vast majority of Scottish seats. The evidence that there will be another referendum so quickly is thin on the ground, which makes Jim Murphy’s warning seem like a last desperate attempt to convince No voters that their new support for the SNP will have dire consequences. Here is why a quickfire second referendum will almost certainly not happen.

First, the SNP leadership has not asked for it. Its manifesto includes no reference whatsoever to a second referendum. Instead, it promises to use its position of strength to make the most of the first referendum: to hold the UK government to the promise, made by the three main UK parties, to devolve extensive new powers for Scotland.

Second, the SNP leadership does not want a referendum right now. It will take a lot more than an excellent showing in one election to convince it to try again. Instead, it will seek evidence that there has been a so-called ‘material change’ in circumstances. In the short term, the only change would be caused by events: if the Conservatives form a government, hold an EU referendum, and the UK votes to leave the EU while Scotland votes to stay in, prompting a constitutional crisis. Even then, a new referendum is not inevitable. In the longer term, a material change involves either remarkably high opinion poll support (say, over 60%), or clear majority support for a long time (say, over a year) or some combination of the two. No one in the more sensible side of the SNP would want to hold a new referendum on a whim. The people who want to use the result to declare independence without a vote, or hold a new referendum immediately, do not control the party.

Third, it takes more than moral authority or a political shock to hold a referendum. Remember what it took to secure the first referendum: the SNP made it a key plank of its 2011 Scottish Parliament election manifesto; it won a majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament; and, it negotiated the wording and timing of the referendum with the UK Government. All three steps were necessary to ensure that a vote took place. It would be ridiculous to suggest that a UK Government would follow up this vote with a second referendum on a whim, particularly since there has been no request from the SNP and we have witnessed general refusal by the other parties during the election debates.

More importantly, I would argue strongly that a second referendum is not the story of this election. The story is that the SNP is about to remove the last remnant of Labour dominance in Scotland. It is difficult to overstate just how much Scottish Labour used to dominate all forms of elections in Scotland, and how much the SNP has replaced it as Scotland’s main party. Let’s not skim over this remarkable fact to focus on idle speculation.


Filed under Scottish independence, Scottish politics

The SNP general election manifesto (part 2): What can the SNP hope to negotiate?

See also The SNP general election manifesto (part 1): don’t forget how quickly it all got weird

The SNP is thinking meaningfully, and perhaps for the first time in its history, about what it can hope to get from negotiations from a Labour government. We can put these demands into four categories.

  1. Assurances that have already been made, plus a bit more. When the Scottish parties talk about protecting Scottish public services, such as education and the NHS, they are taking part in an artificial debate. Similarly, when parties make reference to maintaining Scotland’s financial position or delivering the Smith Commission agenda on further devolution they are trying to take credit for something agreed by all the main parties. The SNP is no exception. However, there is some scope for more devolution, driven by SNP pressure and Labour’s desire to look like it delivered ‘home rule’ – particularly in areas, such as social security, where the main obstacle for additional reforms seemed to come from ministers, such as Iain Duncan Smith, that would no longer be in post.
  2. A little push in the right direction. You would expect most SNP success to come from pushing Labour to do things it already wants to do. For example, both want to maintain a ‘triple lock’ on the state pension and abolish the ‘bedroom tax’, there is little ground between the SNP’s call for a minimum wage of £8.70 by 2020 and Labour’s ‘more than £8’ by 2019, and they both make similar noises about abolishing an unelected House of Lords and increasing the representation of women in public life (while the SNP specifically says ‘We will push for 50:50 representation on public and private boards’). Both parties want to find the right form of words to claim that they are cutting the budget deficit without cutting important public services, while investing for the future and avoiding austerity. So, it could be in their common interest to come to a vague agreement on a plan to boost the economy and jobs.

Most remarkably, the SNP has published (on page 5) a list of Labour policies that it is happy to vote for: ‘the reintroduction of the 50 pence top tax rate, a tax on bankers’ bonuses, a bank levy, a mansion tax, a crackdown on tax avoidance, the abolition of ‘non-dom’ status and reversal of the married couple’s tax allowance’. In other areas, the wording of each party commitment leaves the door open for agreement, including: the SNP’s opposition to a child benefit cut and Labour’s proposal for a temporary cap; and, the SNP’s opposition to an EU referendum and Labour not planning to hold one.

  1. Likely Scottish influence on English policies (or reference to devolved areas). In some cases, party agreement extends to policies that refer primarily to England but with some knock-on effect for devolved budgets. For example, both want to boost NHS spending and limit NHS ‘privatisation’ (Labour to fund English hospitals and the SNP to get the ‘Barnett consequentials’) and reduce tuition fees in England (which would boost Scottish Government funding if the shortfall comes directly from UK Government spending).

In other cases, things get confusing because the SNP: effectively supports Labour’s commitment to 25 free hours of pre-school childcare in England while reminding people about its existing commitment to 30 hours in Scotland; wants to boost Labour’s UK house building target (from 40000 to 100000 per year) while maintaining a more limited aim in Scotland; and, will ‘continue to support a moratorium on fracking’ (there is one in Scotland, not England).

  1. Less influence, more red lines? The biggest bone of contention in the manifestos is Trident: the SNP wants to abolish it (the Conservatives want to renew it) and Labour wants to talk about it as little as possible (its manifesto describes a ‘minimum, credible, independent nuclear capability’ but not renewal). Much depends on how the renewal policy is pursued: if primarily through the budget, it will be tricky to secure SNP support for the overall budget; if via legislation, Labour could rely on Conservative support. Much also depends on Labour’s ability to put the issue off, to reflect the fact that many of its MPs would rather not renew.

Other issues may also need to play out before we know what will happen: the SNP has called for a return to an entitlement for non-EU students to work in the UK temporarily after graduation (Labour’s emphasis is more on curbing bogus student visas); and, there is a common desire to tackle the big energy companies, but with a separate SNP aim to challenge the UK rules on transmission charging.

Finally, I don’t think full fiscal ‘autonomy’ or ‘responsibility’ is the red line that Labour makes it out to be. Before the SNP published its manifesto, the debate resembled two childish tactics playing out simultaneously: the SNP relying on the ‘but you said’ argument, to criticise the main UK parties for not delivering devo max (which they did not promise); and, the other parties daring the SNP to keep asking for the fiscal autonomy it was not being offered (Scottish Labour in particular sees it as the thorn in the SNP’s side).

Now, the SNP is talking about fiscal autonomy in the long term, highlighting how long it has taken to deliver far less ambitious further-devolution plans so far (the Calman review process began in 2007, to produce a Scotland Act in 2012), and pretty much saying that it is prepared to see it delivered over more than one parliamentary term. As such, it has removed the most important red line.

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The SNP general election manifesto (part 1): don’t forget how quickly it all got weird

If you read the SNP’s manifesto, don’t just conclude that it looks as dull as the rest: remember how quickly British politics got weird in the run up to its publication. Context is everything, and there are three pieces of remarkable context to consider.

First, it has been a long time since the SNP had to worry this much about a UK general election manifesto. In Scotland, Labour has dominated the number of seats for decades, and the last and only time that the SNP reached double figures was in October 1974. Even after the SNP became the biggest party in the Scottish Parliament in 2007, it secured only 6 (20%) MPs in 2010. Now, suddenly, we are expecting the SNP to follow up its landslide Scottish Parliament victory in 2011 with a large majority of Scottish seats in 2015 – and the leaders of the UK parties (not just their Scottish leaders) have to respond in a meaningful way.

Second, this will happen even though the SNP lost the referendum on Scottish independence and is not pushing for a second. For the casual observer, equating the SNP with little more than a single aim, it will be difficult to work out why the SNP’s membership surged after the referendum and why it has not reinforced the SNP’s determination to try again quickly.

Third, it is possible that the SNP will form some kind of non-trivial relationship with a UK Labour party of government. For observers of Scottish politics, this is almost like a Labour-Conservative agreement in the UK. Even though Scottish devolution in 1999 came with the promise of new, less partisan, politics, the SNP-Labour relationship has generally been adversarial.

One reason why this outcome doesn’t seem quite so weird is that the SNP has proved to be a professional party which has thought about its short term message and long term strategy. Its aim is independence in the long term, but it won’t push for a referendum unless it knows it can win. Nor will it push for further devolution at all costs. Rather, it is looking for way to balance its long term aims with a way to make its policies relevant to every possible election. In 2015, this means occupying ground to the left of UK Labour while doing what most parties have done in Scottish politics for decades: opposing ‘the Tories’.

See also: The SNP general election manifesto (part 2): What can the SNP hope to negotiate?

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What will be the role of constitutional issues in the UK General Election 2015?

From the vantage point of Scotland, you would expect constitutional issues to dominate the UK General Election. The famous ‘vow’ almost ensured its place in the debate, because the idea was that each political party would engage in the Smith Commission and include its recommendations in their party manifestos. Although the SNP was one of the least satisfied parties, it has already begun to campaign on the idea that the others might drag their feet come election time. Yet, it seems inevitable that all of the main parties will include something very close to the Smith recommendations. Indeed, Scottish Labour argues that one part of it (devolving the licenses to ‘frack’) can be done now, with an amendment to the current Infrastructure Bill at Westminster.

We have also seen some opening exchanges that show how much the constitutional question is in the minds of Scottish politicians. Most notably, Jim Murphy’s apparent promise, to use the proceeds of the UK ‘mansion tax’ to fund 1000 more nurses than the SNP would promise, has raised issues about the extent to which people can make meaningful promises for devolved areas in UK elections, and the role of the Barnett formula, since the promise depends on a UK Labour government in 2015 using the money on health (or another fully devolved area) and a Scottish Labour government in 2016 using the Barnett consequentials to fund more nurses.

This is the normal routine in Scottish elections, where parties tend to drape themselves in the Scottish flag and fall over themselves to show that they are standing up for Scotland. It is not yet the norm in England, although there are early signs that things are changing. Murphy’s claim was met with predictable opposition from Boris Johnson, who claimed that it represented a tax on London to pay for services in Scotland. It was less predictable that some Labour MPs would agree so publicly (unless you buy into the idea that the internal Labour debate was manufactured).

This short-lived debate shows the potential for a new dynamic that we saw developing during the independence referendum campaign: the so called English backlash, built on the idea that an increasing number of people in England feel that Scotland has a disproportionate advantage in the Union and that it is time to stand up for England’s interests (also note the longer, and largely justifiable, sense in Wales that it does far less well from the current arrangements than Scotland). Whether or not people feel this way might be less important than the political capital that parties can gain from the claim. Particularly since the rise of UKIP, it has become more tempting to refer specifically to interests in England, to push back against Scottish claims for more powers, and/ or to seek assurances that there will be some sort of equivalent move in England (currently, the periodic focus is English Votes for English Laws). However, I doubt these issues will dominate the election in England. In the UK as a whole, Scotland may have disproportionate influence, or receive disproportionate attention, but it is still small beer.

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